A lot of us have dated Joe Manchin.
I mean, yuck, not literally. But in watching this coal millionaire take a torch to any sort of future hope for federal climate policy in the U.S., it’s hard not to think of other gaslighters I’ve known.
In the early hours of Friday morning, the news broke that Manchin told Democratic leaders Thursday that he would not support climate provisions in President Biden’s Build Back Better Act. (He also nixed his support for increased taxes on the wealthy, because he is leaning into being a cartoon villain.)
This is the culmination of months of cat-and-mouse behavior from Manchin, whose “maybe” vote has dragged out the passage of this package thanks to his deciding presence in a split Senate. In increasing fits of desperation, Democrats kept lowering their standards for Manchin’s preferences, gutting and slashing climate provisions left and right based on his whims—kind of like how you really want some guy to like you, so accept him coming over at weird hours, or not introducing you to his friends, or leaving you on read for days.
This dude is paid by fossil fuel interests that do not want to see meaningful climate action. A coal waste resale company owned by Manchin that feeds one (troubled) dirty plant has raked in $5 million in profits for the senator and his wife since 2010. Powerful electric utilities, several of which were opposed to certain renewable energy provisions in the Build Back Better Act, are also Manchin’s buddies, and have paid him handsomely for his service. In an exposé of Exxon’s lobbying practices aired last summer, a lobbyist for the company referred to Manchin as a “kingmaker” and said he spoke with his office every week; Exxon and trade groups it’s a part of have been powerful forces lobbying against Build Back Better. You can tell a lot about a guy by his friends, and if they’re all assholes who live large on dirty money, chances are he’s the same.
Leftist groups like the Sunrise Project have made their extreme displeasure with Manchin—and with Democratic leadership for trusting him—known throughout this entire process. But some centrist commenters have encouraged the public to have faith in Manchin and other actors who want “sensible” climate action. In a column from March, author and noted big-brain boy Matt Yglesias argued that climate advocates critiquing fossil fuel control of Washington were the ones stalling real progress, explaining that Manchin is “not terrible on climate issues” because he doesn’t deny the science—perhaps the lowest bar to ever be set in the history of low bars.
Manchin himself has helped launder this image of being a moderate on climate action partly through his own dawdling on Build Back Better itself. He’s leaned hard on solutions favored by fossil fuel companies, like carbon capture and storage, while seeming to make small concessions on issues like methane—enough to keep Democratic leadership hooked on the possibility of him coming around. It’s similar to when the guy you’re dating claims he’s a feminist, even though he refers to his mom as a bitch and all his exes as “crazy.”
There’s a lot of political crystal-ball gazing that I’m sure Washington analysts will be parsing ad nauseam in the weeks to come. But importantly, it seems clear to me that this behavior—pretending to be in favor of climate “solutions” and “not denying the science” while stalling actual progress for the benefit of your fossil fuel buddies—is going to be easily replicated by politicians across the political spectrum. Democratic leaders seem to expect anti-climate politicians to be rejecting science left and right, when in reality fossil fuel companies and their allies have made huge rhetorical shifts in how they present themselves.
When even Exxon has a net-zero plan, it’s no longer the move to publicly deny the science; rather, delay is the name of the game. The new fossil fuel playbook is about questioning the efficacy of the very real, very radical policies that we so desperately need right now, and presenting false hope in the form of “solutions” like natural gas and carbon capture that polluters are more comfortable with. Manchin’s techniques may set the stage for a generation of savvy fossil-fuel-funded allies to keep climate action at a standstill while earning brownie points for seeming “concerned” about the issue. And based on how we saw Democratic leadership cater to Manchin, they will be the first ones to be fooled, time and time again.
Buckle up, everyone. It’s about to get a lot more gaslight-y out there.